Man Knowledge: Dueling Part II – Prominent Duels in American History

by Chris on March 30, 2010 · 33 comments

in Manly Knowledge

The United States currently finds itself in a rancorous political moment, with partisan name-calling on the one hand and much hand-wringing about the classless nature of the debate on the other. Those in the latter camp seem to think that politics has devolved from an unspecified golden age in which politicians sipped tea and talked about their issues with solemn decorum.

In truth, politics has always been a rowdy arena, and if one looks to our founding period for a bastion of politeness, they will not find it there.

“Men in public life called each other, not just the traditional ‘liar,’ ‘poltroon,’ ‘coward,’ and ‘puppy,’ but also ‘fornicator,’ ‘madman,’ and ‘bastard;’ they accused each other of incest, treason, and consorting with the devil.” -Gentlemen’s Blood: A History of Dueling

Political tensions ran especially high in the 19th century because men found it difficult to separate political disagreement from personal insults:

“In our early years a man’s political opinions were inseparable from the self, from personal character and reputation, and as central to his honor as a seventeenth-century Frenchman’s courage was to his. He called his opinions “principles,” and he was willing, almost eager, to die or to kill for them. Joanne B. Freeman, in Affairs of Honor, writes that dueling politcos ‘were men of public duty and private ambition who identified so closely with their public roles that they often could not distinguish between their identity as gentlemen and their status as political leaders. Longtime political opponents almost expected duels, for there was no way that constant opposition to a man’s political career could leave his personal identity unaffected.’” -GB

Refusing a challenge to duel would effectively end a man’s political career. Dueling proved to a man’s constituents that he had the requisite honor, courage, and leadership to represent them in Washington.

And thus you had governors and legislators, Congressman and judges squaring off not through bumper stickers and robo-calls, but on the field of honor. Here are a few of the most famous of these single combats in American history:

The Burr-Hamilton Duel

The most famous duel in American history is unquestionably that which occurred between Vice President Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, who greatly influenced the founding of America’s economy and was possibly on track to become President himself. Burr and Hamilton had long been political enemies by the time they met on the field of honor. Hamilton had been instrumental in preventing Burr from winning the Presidency when Burr tied Thomas Jefferson’s vote count, leading to Burr’s eventual appointment as VP. The two men continued to square off politically until rumors that Hamilton had been saying “despicable” things about Burr led the slandered veep to issue a formal challenge to duel.

The two men met on the field of honor in Weehawken, New Jersey on the morning of July 11, 1804.  Interestingly enough, Hamilton’s son had fallen to a mortal blow in a duel at the very same place just two years before. The same guns used in his duel were also used in his father’s.

The accounts of precisely what happened are conflicting, but it is generally thought that Hamilton fired first, aiming high and missing Burr completely. Burr then aimed squarely at Hamilton’s torso and returned fire.  Hamilton fell, the bullet lodged in his spine, and he died the following morning.

Whether Hamilton’s miss was intentional or not is debatable. Hamilton had recorded in a letter the previous night that he intended to purposefully miss Burr in an effort to end the confrontation without bloodshed. Still, other believe that Hamilton so detested Burr that he shared this sentiment simply to paint Burr as the villainous shedder of innocent blood, thus forever besmirching his character.

If that truly was his wish, it was certainly granted. Though murder charges were levied against Burr, he was never brought to trial. But the ensuing political fallout undermined Burr’s political clout and brought a swift end to his career.

The Jackson-Dickinson Duel

Prior to his presidential career, Andrew Jackson was known for his inclination to invoke violence in defense of his honor; he was the veteran of at least 13 duels. These showdowns left his body so filled with lead that people said he “rattled like a bag of marbles.”

The most famous of Jackson’s affairs of honor was his confrontation with prominent duelist Charles Dickinson. Dickinson, rumored to be the best shot in the country, had insulted the future President by alleging that he cheated in a horse racing bet between Jackson and Dickinson’s father-in-law. Insults were exchanged, culminating with Dickinson insulting Jackson’s wife. Slandering Jackson’s wife was “like sinning against the Holy Ghost: unpardonable.” Biographer James Parton claimed that Jackson “kept pistols in perfect condition for thirty-seven years” to use whenever someone “dared breathe her name except in honor.” Jackson had no choice but to issue a challenge to duel.

Jackson and Dickinson met at Harrison’s Mill on the Red River in Kentucky on May 30, 1806. The men were to stand at eight paces and then turn and fire.  Dickinson was a well-known sharpshooter and Jackson felt his only chance to kill him would be to allow himself enough time to take an accurate shot. Thus he calmly allowed Dickinson to fire into his chest. The bullet lodged in his ribs, but Jackson hardly quivered, calmly leveling his pistol at Dickinson. But when the trigger was pulled the hammer of his gun only fell to the half-cocked position and did not fire. According to dueling etiquette, this should have been the end of the duel.  Jackson, however, was not finished with Dickinson. Re-cocking his pistol, he aimed and fired, striking Dickinson dead.

It was only then that Jackson took heed of the fact that blood was dripping into his boot. Dickinson’s musket ball was too close to his heart to be removed and forever remained lodged in Jackson’s chest. The wound would lend him a perpetual hacking cough, cause him persistent pain, and compound the many health problems that would beleaguer him throughout life. But Jackson never regretted the decision. “If he had shot me through the brain, sir, I should still have killed him,” he said.

The Clay-Randolph Duel

John Randolph was quite a character. He fought his first duel at 18, seriously wounding a fellow student over his mispronunciation of a word. His volatility continued as a Congressman; “he called Daniel Webster “a vile slanderer,” President Adams a “traitor,” and Edward Livingston “the most contemptible and degraded of beings, whom no man ought to touch, unless with a pair of tongs.” When he wasn’t hurling insults at his associates, he was challenging them to duels.

Following a slanderous speech on the Senate floor in which he accused sitting Secretary of State Henry Clay of “crucifying the Constitution and cheating at cards,” Senator John Randolph found himself the recipient of a formal challenge to duel. While comfortable with assailing the man’s character, Randolph, an experienced marksman, had no intention of robbing Clay’s family of their patriarch (and suffering the political fallout of slaying the Secretary of State).  Several days before the duel took place, Randolph confided in Senator Thomas Hart Benton that he was unwilling to kill Clay, but did not want to sacrifice his personal honor either, so he would instead purposefully aim high when the time came to fire.

When the day of the duel arrived on April 8, 1826, both men met on the field of honor. As preparations for the start of the duel were still being made, Randolph accidentally fired his gun, which was pointed at the ground. Clay accepted that the misfire was an accident and allowed the duel to proceed. Marching the agreed upon number of steps in opposite directions, both men turned and fired.  Randolph, apparently motivated by the humiliation of his misfire (and his missed chance to come off as the magnanimous one), made no effort to aim high, although he still just missed his intended target, the bullet perforating Clay’s coat.  Clay also missed, and having gained no satisfaction, demanded another go around. This time Clay missed again, and Randolph followed through on his promise to Benton by firing into the air.  Moved by the sentiment, Randolph met Clay at midfield for a handshake to end the duel, noting to his opponent that he owed him a new coat.  Clay simply replied “I am glad the debt is no greater.”

A Couple of Close Calls

Not every challenge to duel ended with gunfire. Here are a couple of noteworthy near misses.

The Lincoln-Shields Duel

As an elected official in the Illinois State Legislature, future President Abraham Lincoln was sharply critical of James Shields’ performance as Illinois State Auditor.  Lincoln even resorted to adopting various pseudonyms and publishing many satirical letters criticizing Shields (a common tactic at the time).  In an unfortunate twist of fate, Lincoln’s future wife Mary Todd and a friend also wrote several letters. But the women got carried away, changing the tone from satirical criticism to insult.  Shields, upon discovering that Lincoln was behind the letters in one form or another, issued an immediate challenge.  Lincoln, unwilling to accept the public disgrace that came with refusing a duel, and eager to impress his future wife Mary, accepted.

As the challenged party, Lincoln set the parameters for the duel. It was to be fought with large cavalry broadswords in a deep pit divided by a board which no man could step over.  In creating such parameters, Lincoln aimed to disarm his opponent using his superior reach advantage and avoid bloodshed on either side. Furthermore, Lincoln hoped that such ridiculous conditions would force Shields’ withdrawal. But initially, they did not.

On September 22, 1842, the two men met on the field of honor.  As the seconds desperately tried to sway Shields’  determination, he looked over and saw Lincoln chopping at the branches of a nearby tree that would be far out of his own reach. Realizing that he was outmatched, Shields agreed to attempt to talk it out with Lincoln. Lincoln’s second convinced Shields that Lincoln had not written the letters, and Lincoln offered an apology for the misunderstanding, which Shields fortunately accepted. Shields went on to become a prominent United States Senator, and Abraham Lincoln went on to become, well, Abraham Lincoln.

The Twain-Laird Duel

Finally, we end in a duel that neither came to fruition nor is invested with any great historical significance. But it is quite funny.

While living in Virginia City, Nevada, sharp-witted satirist Mark Twain was up to his usual pot stirring, writing such outrageous editorials for The Territorial Enterprise that locals dubbed him “The Incorrigible.” When Twain wrote a piece erroneously accusing a rival paper, The Virginia City Union, of reneging on a promised pledge to charity, the publisher of the paper, James Laird, made such a stink over the false accusation that Twain challenged him to a duel. Twain’s second, Steve Gillis, took Twain to practice his shooting, only to find that the man’s pen was truly mightier than his pistol; Twain couldn’t hit the side of a barn. Filled with fear, Twain collapsed. As Laird and his men were making their way over, Gillis grabbed a bird, shot his head off, and stood admiring the corpse. Laird’s second asked, “Who did that?” and Gillis responded that Twain had shot the bird’s head off from a good distance and was capable of doing it with every shot. Then he gravely intoned, “You don’t want to fight that man. It’s just like suicide. You better settle this thing, now.” The creative ploy worked, and the men reconciled. Tom Sawyer would have been proud.

If you missed it, read part 1 of this series: Man Knowledge: An Affair of Honor – The Duel


{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Kevin in Dallas March 30, 2010 at 10:38 pm

Aaron Burr is also the reason we have the 12 Amendment to the Constitution.

Election of 1800: The election exposed one of the flaws in the original Constitution. Members of the Electoral College could only vote for President; each elector could vote for two candidates, and the Vice President was the person who received the second largest number of votes during the election. The Democratic-Republicans had planned for one of the electors to abstain from casting his second vote for Aaron Burr, which would have led to Jefferson receiving one electoral vote more than Burr. The plan, however, was bungled, resulting in a tied electoral vote between Jefferson and Burr. The election was then put into the hands of the outgoing House of Representatives controlled by the Federalist Party. Many Federalists voted for Burr, and the result was a week of deadlock. Federalist Alexander Hamilton, who detested both but preferred Jefferson to Burr, was one of those who vigorously lobbied against Burr. Burr remained in New York during the debates and votes, as his only daughter was married there on February 1, 1801. No evidence exists to prove that he did anything to sway the vote his way. Hamilton’s actions were one episode of the ill-fated relationship between Hamilton and Burr, which ended in Hamilton’s fatal duel with Burr in 1804. In the absence of efforts on Burr’s behalf, lobbying by Jefferson’s supporters and Hamilton allowed Jefferson to ascend to the Presidency.

2 Trey March 30, 2010 at 11:01 pm

Alexander Hamilton also is the father of the US Coast Guard. In starting the Revenue Cutter Service, which after several mergers, came out the US Coast Guard.

3 Russ March 30, 2010 at 11:25 pm

Stanley Kubrick’s film Barry Lyndon has a few dueling scenes.

The most memorable plays out in real time. Lydon’s challenger, his adopted son, misfires his weapon, and is forced to stand a be shot at. He’s paralyzed by fear, stepping away from the field to throw up. Barry offers him mercy, and deliberately misses with his shot. Refusing the olive branch, his step-son fires his second shot into Barry’s leg, crippling him for the remainder of his life.

Perfectly paced, intense scene from one of the most visually beautiful films Kubrick ever made.

4 Colton March 30, 2010 at 11:30 pm

Aaron Burr is my (insert a lot of greats) uncle. Among the family, he’s regarded as a scoundrel for killing Hamilton.

5 David Dovey March 31, 2010 at 12:02 am

I don’t think this article places enough emphasis on just how bad-ass Abraham Lincoln is. Standing there, chopping high branches as his opponent-to-be looks on? Balls of steel, man. Balls of steel.

6 Erick March 31, 2010 at 6:46 am

Im sure Ill be derided for saying this, but I really think a form of this practice should make a return into American Politics.

7 Chris March 31, 2010 at 7:21 am

I second this motion to return to dueling.

8 Mike Chaplin March 31, 2010 at 7:51 am

Dueling would settle a lot of issues.. but the Lawyers would never go for it..

9 The Renaissance Wife March 31, 2010 at 8:20 am

For some reason I can’t imagine Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton or Dick Cheney engaging in a duell. The latter would either get another coronary, or accidentally shoot his second.


10 Ibrahim | March 31, 2010 at 9:18 am

The Burr-Hamilton duel was one of my favorite parts of American history. There was a movie and everything! When they make a movie out of history, you know it’s good! hehehe.

11 doconicus March 31, 2010 at 10:47 am

I believe that dueling is still legal in most states to ‘non-military’ Americans. But I would recommend confirming it first. Also, the rules are rather strict. i.e. public notification, several day waiting period, legal seconds etc etc.


12 doconicus March 31, 2010 at 10:49 am

Also, though it’s legal for women to duel, they are only allowed to duel other women, same goes for men. And no kids, the PA law that I looked up ages ago said one must be a land-owner and over the age of 21.

13 tdubbs27 March 31, 2010 at 10:58 am

Just for the record, Alexander Hamilton was born on the Island of Nevis in the British West Indies, thus making him ineligible for the office of President of the United States.

14 Fred Leland March 31, 2010 at 2:37 pm

This is a great artcile.

The topic of the duel also gets you to thinking about whether or not in our quest to rid the world of violence (still not done as of yet, nor likely ever to be) have we by attempting to preventing violence through anti bullying laws and zero tolerance policies created and atmosphere of high anxiety that actually leads to more violence?

I will link this to my site as well!!! Great job

15 Tim Lebsack March 31, 2010 at 3:20 pm

I can think of no contemporary politician who would have such courage. Modern politicians do not duel, lead troops into battle nor allow their children to defend us in combat. The men of history must have been forged at higher heat.

16 Ricky Clay March 31, 2010 at 3:24 pm

Henry Clay being my (multiple greats) grand-uncle, I have to mention that we had another relative who is reputed to have killed 31 men in duels, according to family lore. By the way, one of the main duties of the “second” was to kill his own man if he broke and ran.

17 GroomingGuy March 31, 2010 at 8:06 pm

Modern day duels I’d like to see:
John “Live Shot” Kerry and Scott Brown
George W Bush and Al Gore
Angelina Jolie and Pink
Rosie O’Donnell and anyone who would be a faster shot

18 Phelps April 1, 2010 at 1:01 am

First of all, I think that is a slander against Dick Cheney. He already shoots lawyers in the face, and that one was his friend.

In any event, my favorite Duel-that-Should-Have-Been was between Sam Houston (later of the Texas Revolution) and William Stanbury. Stanbury refused him satisfaction, so, naturally, Sam Houston waylaid him in the middle of the street. Stanbury tried to shoot Houston with a pistol, which misfired, and Houston then proceeded to beat him nearly to death with a hickory stick. Houston was (unsuccessfully) defended in his resulting battery charge by Francis Scott Key. Houston reacted to his conviction… by leaving the country and going to Texas.

What I always wondered was if Houston borrowed the hickory from Old Hickory Jackson, his patron, who himself got the nickname from beating the, ah, tar out of people with one.

19 k2000k April 2, 2010 at 3:56 pm

As much as I love Lincoln, he is my favorite president, I can’t consider his duel very bad assed. It was organized to play clearly to his advantage, though I do have to respect the man for wanting to avoid bloodshed by using his natural advantage in reach to try and disarm his opponent.

20 k2000k April 2, 2010 at 4:06 pm

@ 9 The Renaissance Wife

How do we know that the incident with cheney the lawyer wasn’t in fact really a duel with the coverup as a hunting trip? I can picture it right now…

Cheney: “You sir disagree with our presidents use of executive privilige? You rapscallion this insult shall not go unheard on this field of honor!” BLAM, “My honor and dignity hath been preserved.”

Secret Serviceman: “Excuse me sir, he is the lawyer drafting your last will and testament, I mean, you have had like 8 heart attacks”

Cheney: “Damn I forgot, he still alive?”

Secret Serviceman: “Yes sir”

Cheney: “Okay get him to the hospital and call it a hunting accident.”

21 Excavator12 April 3, 2010 at 11:56 pm

I really enjoyed this article. I think that dueling should be brought back into society, particularly within the political arena.
As a demonstration of a commitment to dueling in the 21st century I have created a website called “Bring Back The Duel” ( I actually found this article while taking a break from coding the site. If you guys were a fan of this article bookmark my URL and expect some content within a week or so…look for the feature to issue an E-challenge to duel….all for fun, of course.

22 Darrin April 4, 2010 at 11:18 pm

Awesome piece. Do you really think we’d have as many A-holes in this country if duels still existed? LOL!

23 Drew April 5, 2010 at 4:12 pm

Hamilton was, at the time of the duel, eligible for the Presidency. From the U.S Constitution, article 2, section 1:

No person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty-five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.

24 Albert Lawrence Rush April 5, 2010 at 6:08 pm

I’m somewhat surprised that the Sandbar Fight didn’t make it here, as it was the beginning of the Legend of Col. James Bowie’s famed knife.

25 Joshua April 5, 2010 at 6:43 pm

The story below was posted on another blog I read. It goes nicely with the Lincoln-Shields duel.

The rest of the blog is filled with lots of other manly stuff as well.

26 Uberhack April 6, 2010 at 11:26 am

@ k2000k
I’m afraid you may be missing the point in the Lincoln duel. The reason he made it so unfair was to dissuade Shields from even considering to accept the terms. The badassery here is in how Lincoln worked to prevent any violence from happening every step of the way.
A badass, in my opinion, isn’t just someone who fights with bravado, it’s someone who fights with intelligence as well. Or even better, someone who can defuse a battle before it happens.

27 Matt Reeder April 13, 2010 at 12:36 pm


I do know that the Kentucky oath of office (taken by all elected officals) presently states: “I, being a citizen of this State, have not fought a duel with deadly weapons within this State nor out of it, nor have I sent or accepted a challenge to fight a duel with deadly weapons, nor have I acted as second in carrying a challenge, nor aided or assisted any person thus offending, so help me God.”

Apparently, you can’t hold public office in Kentucky if you’ve ever dueled.. That is, unless you have no problem being a lying politician…

28 Rev. C. Blackwell April 26, 2010 at 2:45 pm

All I have to say is the advent of guns and gunpowder ended the gentlemanly duel. Firearms should only be used in the defense of ones person or home, not for dueling.

29 Garrett April 26, 2010 at 11:44 pm

I’m a born and raised Kentuckian, Henry Clay is someone I have taken a rather active interest in researching, and in doing so (for a paper I wrote the other day) I came across the tale of another duel which Clay was involved in. As I understand it, the duel was sparked when Clay (then a member of the Kentucky General Assembly) and a colleague “had words” when Clay introduced a resolution which required members to wear suits made of homespun cloth, not British. A man named Humphrey Marshall took offense to this measure, I’d imagine that it had something to do with his closet full of suits made of British broadcloth. The duel didn’t end in any death, what I find most interesting was that, as not to bloody or disgrace their home soil with a duel, they took their beef to Shippingport, Indiana… gotta love creative solutions.

30 Jeff B May 15, 2010 at 10:45 pm

On his TV show Late Night Show in 1999, Leno commented to George W. Bush on the subject of his running regiment. Bush responded that he was willing to settle the presidential election with a footrace against Gore.
Points to Bush for man vs. man physical challenge, and to boot, he announced it in publicly neutral territory (NBC). Closest thing I have heard to modern day political duel. I remember watching the show, it was heartwarming.

Good Artical

31 Colonel Mike May 19, 2010 at 6:05 pm

Duel.. I’ve toed the line and gone bare knuckles 3 times. 3 wins.
Picked a fight with 2 Marines at Newark Airport in “71. They kicked the livin’ shit out of me. I looked so bad the judge threw my assault case out of court. I don’t regret any of it.

32 derek August 1, 2010 at 12:19 am

Andrew Jackson is an absolute beast of a man. A incredible role model for strength and leadership in a man. Fights corporate big banks, takes Florida without permission, personally hangs Indian leaders, military general and leader, brought national debt to zero ( only president to do so), popular choice President.

33 Eric November 22, 2013 at 3:46 pm

Where I’m from, though rare, it’s still acceptable to ask someone to “step outside and settle this like men” when there’s been a serious insult or dispute. When I was a senior in HS in 2004 I had problem with a kind-of buddy running his mouth at a party and asked him to step outside. Before we went out we agreed that he would allow me one fair chance to swing and connect. If I connected well, then he would be allowed a fair chance to swing and connect back. You could block or duck, but no cheap shots – no striking when not your turn, no wrestling, etc.
Outside we squared off; I dropped my left shoulder to kind of fake an upper cut, he reacted leaving his face open, I came down with hard right cross and dropped him. He didn’t recover enough to take his turn that night, but I was satisfied and he was sorry, an hour later or so we were just fine and we’ve gotten a long well ever since. No one else jumped in, there was no drama after that, no rematch – nothing. But both his honor and mine were established and/or maintained by that. Since then I’ve called others out and have been called out a few times but the issue quickly worked itself out before any fight happened.

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